Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Month: June 2012

Freedom – It Should Include Everything

I used to think that freedom was freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of conscience. But freedom needs to include all of the lives of all of the people. Freedom is the right to sow what you want. It’s the right to make boots of shoes, it’s the right to bake bread from the grain you’ve sown and to sell it or not to sell it as you choose. The same goes for a locksmith or steelworker or an artist – freedom is the right to live and work as you wish and not as you’re ordered to. But these days there’s no freedom for anyone – whether you write books, whether you sow grain or whether you make boots.

From Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman

Grossman reflects on the way in which the Soviet regime extinguished every aspect of human freedom and his thoughts are still relevant today.

Political theorists divide freedom between the liberal freedoms – press, speech, conscience and socio-economic freedoms – living, work, craft. And much of the Left-Right conflict during the twentieth-century has focused on the supposed conflict or tension between these two kinds of freedoms and, in particular, the disputed status of ‘the right to property’ (or ‘property as theft’).

Of course our freedoms may compete; one good thing may always be in some tension with another good thing. But, as Grossman observes, our freedoms should hang together. The poet may value his freedom of speech, but the craftsman also needs his freedom to work – and to do the work that suits his talents. What made the Soviet regime so dreadful was that – in the name of freedom – all freedoms were destroyed. Economic freedoms were not salvaged by the state – they too were undermined.

But I think we have drawn the wrong lesson from these facts. In the West we may think that – to some degree – all our liberal freedoms are in tact and that even, thanks to the welfare state, we have now mastered and distributed socio-economic freedoms. But, really, we have made the same compromise as the Soviet state.

You can certainly eat – but only by giving up your freedom. We are impelled to work and to work on the terms set by our master. Either – you are employed and so must do as you are told – or – you are unemployed and must ‘not do’, you must stay inactive in order to get the crumbs that pass as ‘income security’.

And are our political freedoms any better? We can write what we want – but who will read us? We can protest – but who will hear us? The organisation of politics, the press and society is now so rigidly centralised that Stalin himself would be impressed. Our freedom is dwarfed by a society that lacks the spaces that would make our freedom meaningful.

True freedom, freedom for the whole person is a very rare and precious thing.

We might return to Grossman’s observation:

“freedom is the right to live and work as you wish and not as you’re ordered to”

So, we might ask ourselves, why – when we are rich beyond the dreams of any earlier generation – are we not free? What stops us having a reasonable degree of economic security and freedom?

The Poor Cannot Afford the Generosity of the Powerful

Then did all the grants and the subsidies, the benefits and the bargain offers pass over these poverty-stricken peasants when Ingolfur Angerson’s ideals came to fruition? What is one to say? It so happens that it signifies little though a penniless crofter be offered a grant from the Treasury towards the cost of tractors and modern ploughs. Or a forty years’ loan to build a concrete house with double walls, water on tap, lino and electric light. Or a bonus on his deposits. Or a prize for cultivating a large expanse of land. Or a princely manure-cistern for the droppings from one or one and a half cows. The fact is that it is utterly pointless to make anyone a generous offer unless he is a rich man; rich men are the only people who can accept a generous offer. To be poor is simply the peculiar human condition of not being able to take advantage of a generous offer. The essence of being a poor peasant is the inability to avail oneself of the gifts which politicians offer or promise and to be left at the mercy of ideals which only make the rich richer and the poor poorer.

From Independent People by Halldor Laxness

In this excellent book by the Icelandic Noble Prize Winner we are told the story of one man, Bjartur, a sheep farmer and crofter, who fights for his independence. All through the book he refuses charity and he refuses to get enmeshed in debt. He is suspicious of his betters and all their grand ideas to improve his life.

But finally things go too well. The First World War drives up the price of mutton and the growing cooperative movement in Iceland sweeps away the merchants and seems to offer cheap loans and grants – all to bring benefits to the farmer. So Bjartur relents, he takes a loan, he builds a house and – when the economy changes – he loses everything.

Laxness reflects on this terrible paradox – only the rich can afford to take risk accepting all these kind offers – partly because only the rich are insured against the problems that arise when things fall apart.

Today we see the same phenomenon. We are now living an age of austerity where the recent economic bubble has burst. But the price of that bubble cannot be paid by the banks – for they are too important to fail. The price cannot paid by home owners or the middle-classes – despite the fact that over-inflation in house values was at the root of the economic crisis – for their votes are too important to politicians for them to be allowed to suffer.

So who must suffer? It turns out that the poor and people with disabilities – while not responsible for the crisis – must pay the price for it.

Granny’s Meat & Potato Pie

Apologies to vegetarians, but this wonderful dish was cooked regularly by my Granny. On a Friday evening we would all arrive at Granny and Grandad’s house in Levenshulme, in Manchester and at tea time we would cram together around the small dining room table – often propped up on all sorts of improvised chairs. And then Granny would bring out this tasty pie.

It is simple, but needs to be made with love and patience. It tastes of happiness.
 
Ingredients for filling
1 large onion
500g of braising steak
Two carrots
500g potatoes
Fresh thyme
Fresh parsley
Bay leaf
1 pint of beef stock
Pre-heat oven to 150 degrees C (Gas mark 4). Cook onion gently in lard until translucent. Increase heat and cook meat that has been cut up into smallish pieces until nicely caramelised. Add beef stock, bay leaf, thyme and parsley, season and then transfer to oven.
Chop up carrots into small pieces and potatoes into fairly small lumps (similar size to meat pieces). After meat has cooked for 30 minutes add the carrots and potatoes to the pan. Cook for a further hour and 30 minutes or until meat is tender.
When filling is ready fill pie dish and cover with short crust pastry. Cook for a further half hour until pastry is ready.
Ingredients for pastry
220g Plain flour
50g of lard
50g of butter
Serve with red cabbage or baked beans.
After eating all go out to the pub. At least that’s what we all used to do.

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